Postcard from camp: Raiders
Raiders are shifting from Al Davis' ways, particularly in the defensive scheme
After being stuck in free agency and draft, they will continue to tweak the roster
They have overhauled at starting CB, but both newcomers have question marks
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about Raiders camp in Napa, Calif., which he visited on Aug. 5. Read all of our postcards here.
At Raiders camp in Napa, Calif., an area so tranquil and beautiful you can't help but think about wine tours and spa treatments. The set-up is unique in that the team works out on fields behind a Marriott hotel. I was there on a sun-soaked afternoon for the last of three open practices for fans.
1. There's definitely a different vibe without Al Davis, the long-time patriarch of the franchise who passed away last year. Davis oversaw everything associated with the team, and at times employees seemed to walk on egg shells for fear of landing on his bad side. "You always knew he was going to be out here at practice, and if he wasn't at practice he was going to be watching film of everything -- every rep of every drill," says safety Michael Huff. "It's definitely a lot different without him here, but we've got to get used to the new regime."
The most notable changes were on defense and on the sideline. Davis' teams always played man-to-man press coverage, but this year they will use multiple coverages and incorporate some 3-4 schemes to go with what has been their traditional base 4-3 fronts. On the sideline, there were about 1,000 fans seated in temporary bleachers. Club employees couldn't remember practices ever being open to the public when Davis was alive. The added energy was a positive for coach Dennis Allen, who acknowledged that camp can become monotonous for players by the second week. A sideline full of vocal fans can provide a bigger boost for players than a 5-Hour Energy drink.
2. QB Carson Palmer sounds and looks rejuvenated in what will be his first full season with Oakland. The 2003 No. 1 overall pick, who spent the first eight-plus years of his career with the Bengals before being traded to Oakland midway through last season, says he believes he has at least several more good years in him. "I think I have three really good ones left in me -- and hopefully more," he says. "I've been taking phenomenal care of my body since my second year in the league, from talking with guys like Jon Kitna and Vinny Testaverde and picking up a lot from them. I've kept a pretty good gauge on how I feel, and I definitely think I've got three left." Palmer is excited about the possibilities, although his development in the new offense has been hindered at times because of injuries and inexperience in his receiving corps. Denarius Moore, a favorite of Palmer's last season, is sidelined with a hamstring injury; Rod Streater and Juron Criner, while flashing promise, are rookies still trying to find their way.
3. The roster you see today is not the roster you'll see opening day. First-year GM Reggie McKenzie's hands were tied in the offseason, when he had to cut players because the team was so far over the salary cap. He also was hamstrung in the draft, where he had only two selections -- the first in the fifth round -- before receiving two compensatory picks and adding others through trades. Those issues left the team with limited depth, so look for McKenzie to keep a close eye on the waiver wire when teams begin trimming rosters to get down to the 53-man limit. One position he figures to watch closely is running back. Starter Darren McFadden has yet to play a full season since being drafted fourth overall in 2008, and potential backups Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson lack the girth to be workhorse backs. Two days after my visit, Goodson was carted off the field after a sustaining a helmet-to-helmet hit. He's expected to be fine, but the incident was a reminder that the roster could change at that position before Week 1.
4. As entrenched as Palmer is as the starter, Matt Leinart is on equally solid footing as the backup QB. Leinart knows the system after following offensive coordinator Greg Knapp from Houston and has looked so good during practices there is no doubt about his place on the depth chart. But that doesn't mean second-year pro Terrell Pryor isn't in the team's long-term plans. The organization wants to take its time with Pryor, who has great athletic ability but needs to improve his fundamentals, technique and overall understanding of the NFL game. Pryor, who was playing catch-up all last season after being acquired in the 2011 supplemental draft, will get a lot of one-on-one instruction from quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, the only man to get somewhat decent production out of JaMarcus Russell. Presently, there are no plans to use the big and speedy Pryor at any position other than quarterback.
Matt Shaughnessy, defensive end. Shaughnessy isn't a household name, but his presence could be key to the Raiders' run defense. He missed the final 13-plus games last season with a shoulder injury, and Oakland wound up allowing a league-high 5.1 yards per carry. How much of that was due to Shaughnessy's absence is debatable, but there's no question the 6-foot-5, 270-pound fourth-year veteran makes the defense better. He's also a capable pass rusher, finishing with seven sacks in 2010, four of which came in his eight starts.
Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, cornerbacks. The Raiders got rid of their starting corners from last season and are expecting newcomers Bartell and Spencer to play well. Thus far it's been a struggle. Bartell, who missed the final 15 games last season with St. Louis because of a neck injury, was sidelined the first week of camp with a strained hamstring. He has to stay healthy because there isn't much depth in the secondary. Spencer, who spent eight years with San Francisco and did not start a game last season, has been inconsistent in camp. He is being pressed for playing time by second-year pro DeMarcus Van Dyke, who started four games as a rookie in 2011.
Grantland.com estimates that the Raiders will fly a league-high 28,700 miles this season. That's the bad. The good: They play back-to-back road games just twice, and do not travel to the Eastern time zone in consecutive weeks. Also, if they can stay in contention through November, the travel schedule is favorable in that they leave the state of California only once (for Carolina) in their final five games.